Gordon Bowker has missed the chance to say anything new and interesting about the great write
Even Gabriel Josipovici, a stubbornly brilliant critic, seemed to short-change Joyce in his recent polemic What Ever Happened to Modernism? He was more attracted to writers with a high rating of aesthetic anguish, to Kafka's writhings and incompletions, to Beckett's long campaign against his own charm and eloquence, which is a rather romantic way of responding to an anti-romantic movement. In his books, Joyce shed the 19th-century cleanly and decisively, and had a great gift for generating rich new material from arbitrary scraps of patterning. The interval between his realising that a certain way of writing the world was bankrupt and finding a new one seems to have been enviably short, however long it took him to get the words exactly as he wanted them.
The life was a different matter, displaying not so much the celebrated trinity of tactics asserted by his creation Stephen Dedalus (silence, exile, cunning) as unpredictable volubility, reluctant nomadism and the frantic exploitation of benefactors.
A literary biographer needs to be a bit of a historian, a bit of a critic and a bit of stylist. It's hard to say in which department Gordon Bowker falls shortest. Take this historical sketch of Joyce's birth year: "For the British Empire, as 1882 dawned, it was business as usual. Queen Victoria …had ruled her domain for 45 years, and would reign for a further 19." Perhaps there was some sort of floral clock arrangement in public parks, displaying a countdown, so as to keep citizens properly informed of their future.
The great temptation of literary biography is the obsessive coupling of the life and the work, as if a writer's surroundings entered the books directly, and the exact process by which they did so (when they did) was relatively unimportant. Bowker's biography is full of things "inserting themselves" or "finding their way" into Joyce's fiction, as if he wasn't in charge of the process.
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